Walking Into the Holy Land: A Short Story




This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Catharsis, No.25 

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The cabin tipped sideways, then righted itself.

“Look down, Hal,” the pilot said over the loudspeaker. He was talking to me. “This is the place.”

Maybe I was too drunk to find it all that unusual. I was staring out the window admiring the green squares of country. I didn’t see what I was supposed to be looking at. I was on the wrong side of the plane. 

We were flying over the Holy Land, I supposed, a dilapidated theme park near Paris, Wisconsin, nestled in the corn. The small charter plane sputtered over the farms, silos sticking up like thumbs.

I was on my way to ruin a wedding. A song played in my head that my aunt Zaza used to sing. There’s a time for all things, it went. Not now not now not now. My sluggish head chased its tail. I wondered, is there ever a time in life you get to just go in and empty it out? My brain was heavy. I held it in my hands. Not now not now not now not now.

The pilot and I met at the airport bar. I didn’t know he was the pilot at the time. The playoffs were on. I was having a $12 highball, thinking about the NBA, wondering what it would be like to have an exquisitely functional body. The pilot sat next to me. He was a religious fanatic. The bartender, whose name was Mahalia, called us both sugar pie.

It wasn’t the first time a stranger, unprompted, had told me at length about his childhood. There’s something about a wallowing man that attracts other wallowing men. Sit around long enough. Like mussels glomming on a rock.

“My dad took me every Sunday,” the pilot said. He was talking about the Holy Land, an immersive Bible experience. “He thought I needed it back then, and he was right. You a Bible guy?”

I wasn’t in the mood for conversation, but tell that to a drunk. I took a sip instead of answering.

On TV, the Utah Jazz were struggling to score over Houston’s long arms. Each shot thudded like a bird against a windowpane. I knew the feeling. I’d spent most of my savings on this flight, then the last of it on this highball. But I was headed for a defining moment. 

I started a letter in my head. The pilot was still talking, but he didn’t seem to care if I was listening, and I figured I might as well accomplish something. Dear Sigrid.
I stopped. It was as far as I’d gotten all week. My idea was I’d ask her to get a drink. An old friend buying an old friend a tequila soda. Nothing wrong with that. Laughing the whole time like always. I’d say something incredible, and she’d put her forehead on the bar. Ha ha, a hand on my leg to keep her balance. There would be a pause at one point. A look. I’d give her the letter when we said goodnight. The letter would say everything. The letter would be warm to the touch, would contain the whole of me, meltingly. Dear
Sigrid, it would say. And she’d feel the stars leaning on her. So to speak.

“There was the Garden of Temptation,” the pilot said. He was in his own world, lost in the theme park. “The most luscious caramel apples hanging from fake trees. You were supposed to take one.” He looked at me, twinkling. “But when you did, a guy dressed as a snake chased you into a barn full of teenagers in devil suits, who would jump out at you. I worked there in high school, wore a rubber goat mask and jean shorts with no shirt on.” The pilot laughed at the image in his head and sighed. “I’d squirt my stomach with fake blood and terrorize customers. But it was for their souls. I was striking the fear of God in their hearts.” He drank from his margarita bowl with both hands.

“My first job was at the Cracker
Barrel,” I said.

He toasted me and said, “Good man.”

I shrugged.

“Yeah, the Holy Land had its ups. There was a snack shack meant to look like a Nazarene hutment. Free for employees. Next to it was John the Baptist’s ball pit, where you’d jump in and be absolved of all the gluttony you’d just exhibited on your corn dog.” He laughed a lot at that one.

I think of Sigrid when I think I’m dying. The same way people who don’t pray, pray on planes. But to trust in prayer, doesn’t one have to assume they’ve been chosen?

Chosen wasn’t me. No honors, no superlatives. The Oldsmobile I’d just bought was a lemon. It made noises, gurgles, little coughs, shook like a wet dog at stoplights. Plus I had asthma. Plus a hemorrhoid. I had an allergy that made my right eye chronically red. I had the body of a tall 12-year-old. True, in the right light, I was medium-handsome, but the right light seemed to find my face an uncomfortable perch. What I mean is it never settled there long. So I’d given up looking for it. In fact I’d given up looking for lights of all kinds. I didn’t expect much anymore, let alone a blessing from a higher power. But I wouldn’t have minded one.

The wedding was in a barn somewhere outside the city. Sigrid had met Laszlo at a Halloween party. He was tall, a “cyclist,” believed in Bigfoot. “He reads books,” she said, a shrug in her voice. This was when they first started dating, back when we were talking on the phone almost every day. Sigrid said, “It’s nice he reads.” I thought it was a low bar, but who was I kidding. I hadn’t finished a book in more than a year.

Pain was a warm muck, and I’d made it my dwelling. The highballs sloshed in my body. I thought of the nuns who flayed their own backs until the welts spewed blood. Streamers. A celebration. A healing. Pain was devotional medicine.

“All pain is sacred,” Sigrid said to me once. She said it laughing. We were drinking Butterfinger Blizzards in an empty outdoor seating area. We were both heartbroken for different reasons, so we tried to unbreak. It was the night we fell asleep in the dark back corner of the Dairy Queen parking lot, bent like flexi-straws in the trunk of her CRV. The night Sigrid pulled me into her by the hand. “More fingers,” she said and kept saying until I was up to my wrist. “Like this.” The windows fogged. She made a fist for me. I made a fist.
Sigrid’s body unbuckled around me. Sweat collected dripping on the glass. “You’re very pretty,” she said, touching my face. I remember crying, but I couldn’t have. I remember she pressed her dewy forehead to my neck and it was the feeling of crying.

I was sure Sigrid and I had met when we were too young to remember. We were from the same city, and I imagined a sandbox. A waddle toward each other. A touch that lingered. A couple of babies figuring it out. Our fingers in each other’s mouths. I was sure because that night in the back of Sigrid’s car, with her adult fingers in my mouth, the overwhelming feeling was homesickness.

Sometimes I got that way. A yearning I couldn’t explain for a world I didn’t inhabit. Or a world I’d only dreamt about. Sometimes I thought about the ridiculous promises we’d all been made. Of gods. Of paradise. There had been so many missteps, so many stumbles, a lot of falling, but toward what? I was homesick for milk and honey.

My original flight was double-booked, so the airline had found me a spot on a small charter plane. At the boarding gate, I’d noticed an odd clientele gathering. Some were in muumuus, some in three-piece suits, others in long biblical robes. There was a group of three women who seemed to be dressed as saints from
Renaissance paintings, two men in starched, white suits. Their posture was impeccable, like they’d been starched themselves. One woman carried a long, unlit candle. There was a palpable buzz of excitement, though it was hard to tell what was going on. Everyone was shaking hands, milling about.

I’d learn later, from the woman next to me on the plane, whose name was
Holly, that they were all headed to GodCon, a convention for lesser prophets. “Some of these people have heard God’s voice in the gurgle of a creek,” she said. “Some see the Virgin’s face pop out periodically from the pattern in their linoleum floor, or the Lord swimming in their chicken noodle.” She offered me an
Ambien and when I said no, took it herself. “No one here thinks they’re Moses, but it’s worth getting together once in a while and comparing notes. The hope is a pattern might start to emerge. Such that our purpose might reveal itself. You see what I’m saying?” I nodded. She patted me on the leg and opened SkyMall.

As a teenager, I’d seen a cult, all in white, wade into the Yuba River in slow, sweet song. Some of them sat on the flat rocks on the bank, playing wooden recorders. One by one these people approached the priest, who stood ribs-deep in a royal blue gown, and one by one she blessed them, pushed their heads under, held them a few seconds. When they came up, they came up grinning. They were lighter then, I imagined, washed free of the chubby demons they’d been carrying around on their shoulders. I watched the baptisms from the oak trees above the river, in swim trunks and flip-flops. My own demon played with my ears, singing an ugly song. I looked at my belly and tried not to think about what must be inside, dragging me down. My body is so tired of carrying itself, I thought. Even then.

“You go to church?” Holly said.

I shook my head. “Sometimes,” although the only church I’d been to in the last 15 years was for funerals.

“You spiritual?”

I shrugged.

“I can tell you are, somewhat, just by how you hold yourself, how you listen. Maybe you’re suppressing it though, huh? Maybe you’re afraid of faith, but I see it in there. You’re an observer,” she said. “That means your satellite dish is up. That means you’re receptive to a signal from the divine.”

The reason I was quiet was the highballs from the airport bar. My brain sloshed, echoing in the sepulcher of my melon.

I had to pee. It wasn’t urgent at first, but my bladder was beginning to swell against the seatbelt, causing me some discomfort. Holly — fat, sublime, and smelling of rosewater — was asleep now, blocking my path to the aisle. 

Once, she’d tried to kill herself in an airplane bathroom. She told me this earlier, over our bags of nuts. She’d taken a bunch of sleeping pills but fought against them, clinging to consciousness. “So there I was, high as a fly,” she’d said, laughing. When they hit a patch of turbulence, she entered in a death dream, the plane rambunctious and full of fear. Like a bull stuck with swords. In this moment, death seemed to her a respite. “But the only thing I had was a spork from the airline,” she said. “It was highly unsuccessful.” She showed me the rake marks, laughing. What foolish things.

It was the reason she’d been attending the convention for the last 10 years. When the blood started to ooze from the spork tracks, it oozed in the shape of a dove. “As we know from scripture,” she told me, “during His baptism, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and alighted on Christ. Well I was floored. My eyes opened. It was then that I chose to live.” Now Holly was zonked out, dragged under by the Ambien. Immune to death. 

Out the window we emerged from white into a sky of tabernacles, towering clouds dolloped all over, as if gliding along a lumpy and baroque cul-de-sac, and we plunged again into one, into pure, soft milk. A quietness. Like stepping from screaming honking daylight into the peace of a church.

“Isn’t it incredible?” I turned around. The flight attendant was pushing his coffee cart past and must have seen me staring out the window. I noticed my lips had fallen apart into a childlike look of awe. I was slightly embarrassed and tried to reorder my face into Friendly Smile. The flight attendant poured me coffee and bent over sleeping Holly to hand it to me. “The clouds are why I’m here,” he said. He told me he’d been in the medical supplies business and was taking work trips — Houston to Zurich to Ottawa to Düsseldorf, he said, and he’d always get the aisle. He liked the legroom. “I’d take a Xanax, put my eye mask on, and miss the whole thing. Then one day I was upgraded to business class, a window seat — they’d overbooked — and my whole world opened up. Somehow I had forgotten what flight was, the magic of entering a cloud, being thrown headlong into it. It was a nostalgic feeling for me, that great palace of wonder that, as a child, had once been my home.”

“Now I live up here,” the flight attendant said.

Like an angel, I thought. Maybe it was just the light from the window, but his face seemed luminescent there among the dull grays of the cabin. It was as if he’d transcended the grays of this mortal coil. He beamed.

I myself was bogged down in grays. When I did go out these days, it was to wind up alone on a balcony outside a party, to wrap myself in the tiny gray world of a spliff. Indoors, there would be mingling, dancing. My friends laughing and drinking, but I couldn’t bring myself to join them. There would be Alyssa and Dawn, Phillip and Eddy, all of whom I’d dated briefly and not well. And there was Sigrid, through the glass, dancing slow and dreamy, my friend, who once had taken me by the wrist and pulled me inside her, who I’d held all night in the hollow my sleeping body made, who I’d dated not at all but loved with each gathered molecule of me. Every party was always this. There was a warm light through the window, too thick and gold to stay in long. The warm gold light of the chosen. From there I’d walk back to my apartment, for which I’d never gotten around to buying more than one chair. I’d tend to my two dying cactuses, a few drops of water each, and lie on my back until sleep laid its cloth over my body.

I thanked the flight attendant for the coffee, and as I looked back up at him, he smiled. I felt a hunger well up in me, the inexplicable hunger one gets in the presence of something beautiful, a cloud, for instance. In that moment, I wanted to put a cloud in my mouth.

The flight attendant had a fresco face. A face flush with sun. I got the feeling here was a man who had the missing piece. Here was a man who was full.

The fasten seatbelt sign lit up, and the pilot was speaking directly to me: “This is it, Hal. The Holy Land. The place I was telling you about. Tray tables up, people. We’re landing.” We were nowhere near Cleveland and seemed to be circling back. A murmur of alarm went up in the cabin. “Who’s Hal?” I heard someone say. The pilot was quite drunk.

Somewhere, a baby was crying. The plane veered toward the ground. My ears were popping, and I thought I ought not to have had my third drink. A hard bell had begun to ring in my head.

The rubber oxygen masks unfurled, and many of the passengers were scrambling to undo their inflatable yellow vests from under their seats, though we were over dry land. All around, you could feel the air beginning to thicken with anxiety, the way the static electricity around a balloon starts to knit itself into being. Someone screamed. Soon there were several babies crying. A man, who’d been pounding on the door to the cockpit, now smeared down it, sobbing, and slumped. There was no turbulence. The sky outside was clear blue and smooth, and we floated down through it. It felt natural. I knew I should be afraid, but I couldn’t summon it. I thought of the pilot in the goat mask covered in blood. I tried to think of God. I thought of Sigrid.

Holly’s head lolled peacefully. I still had to pee. Across the aisle, a man had his face on the tray table, muttering a prayer. I thought about what I’d pray for. What to want in the face of God. Certainly not the first thing I thought of: a bleak Cleveland winter, financial hardship, strain, Sigrid and Laszlo fighting and fighting, a realization. No. Certainly happiness for them, abundance. A rain of beheaded marigolds. Doves. A rain of rice.

Dear Sigrid, I thought. But the body of the letter dangled out of reach. Even then, I knew the letter wasn’t real. The idea of it was a sense of agency. The sense of being the hero in my own life. A daydream. In it, she and I would tear down the wedding streamers together, to the sound of trumpets. We’d drive to the desert. I’d devote myself to her completely.

There were baths I’d dreamt up, candles, garlands of flowers slung from the curtain rod. And there were dinners I’d cook her, of lamb braised so long the meat barely clung to the bone. I dreamt massages, oils, hyacinths, the smell of jasmine, luxuries heaped on the altar of our life. In the way some people had idols and deities, Sigrid and I would have each other.

For a year I couldn’t sleep unless we talked on the phone. I needed her. That was the truth of it. She was an escape from my floundering, unfulfilling life. A purpose that kept my great reservoir of emptiness at arm’s length.

I was still calm, considering death, a lush cornfield, was hurtling up at me like a thrown dinner plate. An old woman wobbled down the aisle, raving, holding up a large crucifix she must have had in her carry-on. “He’ll open his heart to us,” she was saying. Some turbulence threw her sidelong into a row, and the people helped her back up. “Trust in Him,” she said. “Heads down! Pray, people!” I wasn’t praying. She was looking at me.

I didn’t know what good it would do, me of little faith, but here I was anyway flying into the room of God’s heart. The room at the end of anxiety, struggle, the room that would quiet all those awful symptoms of hope. I looked at the woman’s icon. Typical Christ: limp and dripping on the cross. The end of suffering. Another promise. As if such damage could hasten the coming of peace.

The cabin was in a state of disarray, so it went relatively unnoticed when I climbed over the woman next to me, stepping catlike on the armrests. The pee inside me needed to get out. As I moved through the aisle, I saw people breathing “I love you” into cell phones, parents cinching the rubber masks tight to their children, a man with his nose buried in the fur of an emotional support pug. One couple was making out, weeping, hands holding each other’s faces, clawing like they were trying to find a way in.

By now the plane was shaking. Like rolling downhill in a shopping cart. Overhead compartments popped open, and bags started falling like a plague of fat birds. At the end of the aisle, the edges of the closed bathroom door glowed.

Sometimes you find yourself in a room full of candles. And someone is singing a long low golden tone, and you sit on a bench, whose wood sputters under your weight, or if there is no bench simply set your knees on the cold stone floor. You find it is incredibly painful, and for what? Again and again you find yourself in this room, or a room just like it. Your whole life is spent seeking these places, because at some point a promise was made of refuge, salvation. Sometimes the room you enter is made of salt crystals and is inside a Korean spa. Sometimes it’s a quiet church in the belly of a thunderstorm. Sometimes the shelter you’re looking for is in the soft folds, between the fat luminous thighs of a friend, and sometimes you yourself are a room. Sometimes a friend enters the room of you and finds refuge, and this is a feeling of splendor. Each room asks that you give yourself over completely.

Sitting in the lavatory sink was the flight attendant. It was cramped in there with both of us. The light made it look like he was radiating gold.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can leave.”

“Are you using it?”

“I was just thinking in here. A little respite.”

“It’s no problem. You don’t mind if I use the toilet?”

“Be my guest,” he said. “I’ll look over here,” and he began to touch the paper towel dispenser interestedly. I noticed two lit votive candles inside slender glass vessels, one on either side of the sink. I got the sense the lavatory was a kind of chapel for him. “It’s the quietest place on the plane,” he said.

“I’m Hal,” I said. “I’d shake your hand, but—” 

“Gabriel.”

I was aiming, so I couldn’t turn around. Pee choired in the bowl of the toilet. “What do you think the odds are on this landing?” I asked him. I hoped he’d have some idea, being in the business.

But instead of answering, he said, “Do you pray?”

This did little to reassure me. I shook my head. “I don’t know what I’d pray for.”

The flight attendant laughed, shifted on the sink so his leg was up. He was wearing shorts. His thigh was a cornucopia of defined muscle. “What do you wish for on birthday candles?”

I shook out my penis and zipped my fly, feeling emptied. “World peace,” I said. “Every time.”

“Ever come true?” He smiled. The plane lurched, and the whole bathroom dropped. My stomach flew up into my lungs, then settled. The votive candles remained lit. “Maybe I can help you,” said the flight attendant.

He placed three fingers under the faucet on which he was sitting, twisted the knob, and then looked me in the eyes. I realized then it wasn’t the bathroom light. He was surging with a warm glow. I bowed my head, and he touched me wetly on the forehead, on the heart, on one shoulder, then the other. But I didn’t pray for world peace. Instead I thought of a bed, a window, slabs of morning light, a leg slung over me, and the pear-sweet call of a mourning dove outside. The plane banged around the clouds. I thought of Sigrid.

The sink water from my forehead was dripping down, and Gabriel was opening his shirt to me, kissing the holy water from my jeweled face. He reached down. I did too. As my lips found the oil and stubble along the thick shaft of muscle on his neck, my fingers found his zipper. His penis was smaller than mine. Though hard, the skin was tender as a fig. I knelt. For a moment, I held him on the wet altar of my tongue, then kissed lower. His balls tasted like sweat. I suckled at them, licking along the seam up to the base, then further. I could feel his heart in the veins. He sunk into me, as one sinks into a hot bath. I felt the bulb of his tip press on my throat. I felt a retch, felt him swell, bursting against my teeth. And I felt pride in being chosen, at last, by my circumstance, there in that gold light, rattling toward oblivion. The attendant pushed further, and tears welled in my eyes. I thought of all the ways I had been chosen and not chosen in life. I tried to see any difference between the two but could find none. Some people, it seemed, were chosen to be blessed, and some were chosen to suffer. There was no use asking for anything. The key was to remain open to whatever you were chosen for — holy sink water, slings and arrows, the great swinging cleaver of God — and to open all your sticky wounds to God like flypaper. To catch all of him in them. So I did. I opened myself completely. I opened my mouth wide, opened my throat despite its retching, until the flight attendant seemed to have entered my chest, to have filled my heart and my lungs with chosenness, and I was anointed.

I caught my breath and rested my head on Gabriel’s thigh while he buttoned his shorts. I felt myself ease into him, still kneeling. I closed my eyes like I was praying. I could have fallen asleep if he didn’t move. But he blessed me again by doing the water thing.

“Will this improve my luck?” I said, getting to my feet.

“What luck? Luck is a devil’s trick. You’re one of God’s children.”

I thanked him, and he nodded. I wiped my mouth.

“Well, we’d better,” he said. “The fasten seatbelt sign is on.”

So I took my seat, balancing down the aisle, climbed again over peaceful Holly, who opened her eyes and smiled, and strapped myself in. Holly put a hand of comfort on my knee.

Out the window, the farms were swelling upward, blurring now. They were close. The clouds in tatters. Barns flew past. I wasn’t afraid. Trees whipped the belly of the plane. Corn stood like babyhair on the backs of the hills, waiting for the knife.

I put my head on Holly’s shoulder and closed my eyes.

Then we were walking into the Holy Land through the cornfields. The plane was on fire behind us, and all we could see of it was the smoke now, ribboning up over the stalks.

The pilot was shepherding us. Most of the passengers had been talking to God for the duration of our descent, God whose big hand, through the bodily vehicle of the pilot, had just set us tenderly in the soft soil of farmland. These people, already minor prophets, amateur seers, were feeling supremely touched, in a little bit of a stupor, following this miracle man. When he parted the corn, and the Holy Land opened up before us, there were actual gasps. I gasped too.

The entrance was a gate built to look like a parting sea. The blue paint was chipped, the plaster falling off its chicken wire frame in chunks. The D on the Holy Land sign had rotted its way out of its top nail and swung upside down. Through the gate, now sealed with a section of cyclone fence, was a dried-up lazy river, a statue of Jesus pouring two pitchers in, one labeled Milk, the other, Honey. The pitchers of course were empty, and Jesus’s face was dripping with bird shit, but the effect landed. A couple people burst into tears. Why not?

Gabriel peeled the fence up, and we all crawled in. He smiled at me as I went through, gave a wink. His legs, squatting, strained against his shorts. I touched his foot meaningfully as I crawled past.

The place was in a state of disrepair. Windows were boarded up, and the small rollercoaster, Purgatorio, which had once slung whirlygigging through the seven levels of Hell, was buckling under the weight of ivy. The Holy Land was a ghost town. Hip-high thistles came up through the asphalt like fists.

The passengers wandered the park in bleary-eyed awe. They bowed before the milk and honey statue, touched the plastic belly of a pregnant Virgin. There was another statue of Jesus on a donkey, whom they caressed, lowering their eyes. Stooped before a chair was an animatronic Jesus that, when he worked, had lovingly washed the feet of guests. Passengers knelt beside him, did their cross, kissed and nursed at his hands. How afraid they were to offend a plastic god.

By sunset, everyone had mostly dispersed. Many had found their way into the small chapel by the food court, and the streets of the park were empty. I looked up. The sky seemed to me a domed room, intimate as a church. I was alone. I could do anything inside that sky. I could ask for anything, and my asking would ring around me. The echo would run down all sides of the dome and envelope me, like two great hands.

All this time I’d wanted love, but I’d imagined it in the literary sense: something found that instantly gives meaning. A satisfactory ending. Like God. An end to searching. An end to suffering. A child’s understanding of love, it now seemed to me.

Gabriel was gone, lost somewhere in the theme park, though I still tasted him in my mouth. I wandered through the Holy Land looking for him, through the filthy windows to John the Baptist’s ball pit, through the decrepit trees of the Garden of Temptation, inside the nativity scene, where several of the passengers had nestled in the hay to sleep. I didn’t know what I would do or say when I found him. I didn’t even know if I wanted to find him, but searching was all I seemed to know how to do. It always had been. But, like all my aspirations, like Sigrid, like a love to end all suffering, he was nowhere. I wasn’t even entirely sure he was real.

Soon I was in the middle of the weedy asphalt courtyard at the park’s entrance, standing before the plaster Jesus. I looked around. With a rock, I broke off the pitchers of milk and honey at the wrists, hands still attached, and put them in my carry-on. It would be a wedding present.

The sun was gone by now, and the moon showed up like a thumbprint on the dark. A light appeared a few hills over — warm and honey gold. An angel, I thought at first, but I realized it had to be a house. The more I stared at it though, I could swear I saw the light furl and unfurl now and then like a set of wings.

It was hard to tell how far the walk was, but the light glowed there like a beacon. We were in Wisconsin. America’s Dairyland. Within the house would be a TV, a table, a set of comfortable chairs. An ordinary living room in which nothing much divine ever happened. I slipped into the cornstalks in its direction. I figured they might have a phone.

¤

Wes Holtermann’s work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, GlitterMOB, Deluge, and elsewhere.

 

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